While it is comparatively easy to salt food at home, smoking is a more complicated business and involves the preparation of a smoke-box. Salting preserves food quite well, but smoking has additional preservative qualities as well as giving the food a special flavour. Foods which can be smoked include eel, salmon, trout, cod’s roe, ham and bacon, tongue, turkey, goose, duck and chicken, beef, mutton and home-made sausages; some items need brining before smoking.
The simplest form of smokehouse can be constructed in a ten-gallon drum with the bottom cut out and a replaceable top which has a few holes punched in. This is mostly useful for smoking trout or haddock, suspended over the concentrated source of heat and smoke. Haddock should be split, cleaned and beheaded, rubbed inside and out with salt, and left overnight, then dried in the open air for three days.
Trout need not be split or beheaded, but the gut should be removed. The fish should then be suspended by the tail on a rod across the top of the drum, and tied with a piece of wire so that they will be at least one foot from the fire. The drum should then be up-ended over the fire – best made between bricks on which the drum stands. The heat must be evenly maintained during smoking – which will take from nine to twelve hours.
In addition to the basic smokehouse, keep a good supply of wood handy. The object of creating the smoke is to make fumes which solidify the albumen in the meat. This halts decomposition; any special flavour is a bonus. The best smoke is produced by slow combustion by hardwood shavings; oak, beech, and hornbeam are excellent, especially with additional flavour provided by juniper and bay. The addition of thyme, sage or heather makes a good variation. Resinous woods should be avoided because they can give an unpleasant flavour to some foods.
A slightly more elaborate smokehouse can be constructed for permanent use. This can be a drum or a packing-case which has been made smoke-proof at the joints with insulating tape or thin strips of metal, standing across a trench. The trench should be about 10ft/3m long, 1ft/30cm deep and 1ft/30cm wide, dug in the direction of the prevailing wind, with old paving stones or sheet iron to roof it over. If the lid of the house is hinged, it will be easier to use, and it should have small holes or a tube inserted as a vent.
To use this type of smokehouse, light a fire in the trench at the end furthest from the box, cover with stones or iron sheets, and open the lid of the box. When the fire is red hot, draw it to the end of the trench and put a load of hardwood sawdust between the fire and the box. Leave a little flue space, cover the trench and seal all spaces with earth. The food can be hung across the box and the lid closed and not opened for forty-eight hours.
The idea is to build up a progressively denser smoke which dries and flavours the food gradually; if the first smoke is too dense, it will form a dry coating on the food which will not then be penetrated by the later smoking. For this type of smoking, the food should be brined first in a strong brine (with enough salt to float a potato). A small fish need only be brined for twenty minutes, but a salmon needs several days, and more elaborate preparation.
The smoking method which is most likely to appeal today is the one using an old-fashioned farmhouse chimney with equipment which can still be used for hams, sausages and other meats. These must be cured first, and are then best left to dry for two or three days before smoking. The food to be smoked can also be hung above the opening of an old bread oven so that the smoke gently enfolds it.
In the latter case, the temperature should never rise above 90°F/32°C, at which point the fat melts and the meat is spoiled. The fire should only be smouldering, not flaming. On the first day, the meat should be smoked for thirty minutes, then rubbed down with pepper, thyme and chopped bay leaves, which will cling to the fat. After cooling and drying for forty-eight hours, the meat should be smoked again for one hour. After further drying for forty-eight hours, and one hour’s smoking, a light flavour will be obtained. The meat should then be hung in the chimney for two or three weeks before being stored in a cool dry place. The meat will lose about one-quarter of its weight in smoking.
A wide chimney can be used for the complete smoking, simply with the exposed meat suspended high up on a bar or on hooks on wire, but the fire will need careful attention throughout. Smoke the meat for about an hour a day, allowing a total of at least three weeks for complete smoking.
A better method of smoking is by regulating the smoke-flow; construct a smoking-box for the fireplace, to fit on a wall above the fire. To do this, a sheet of metal has to be fitted across the whole chimney with a piece of piping going through it and the wall into the smoking-box. A second piece of piping should then go out of the top of the box and back into the chimney. Meat in the box needs about two hours smoking a day for eight consecutive days.
© 1978 Mary Norwak estate. All rights reserved.